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A girl and her guitar: Cottage Grove girl headed to finals of national talent search

Hailey James performed an original song, "Moments that Made Me," at the Cottage Grove Strawberry Fest Talent Show in June. James, 15, is a regional finalist in the PBS Celebration of Music talent search. William Loeffler / RiverTown Multimedia

COTTAGE GROVE — It's a long way to the top for those who aspire to country music superstardom.

But for Hailey James, maybe not.

In a little over a year, the Cottage Grove singer/songwriter has gone from playing local talent shows to the regional finals of a national PBS talent search that could send her to Los Angeles, and into the showbiz orbit of agents and music producers.

James, 15, began playing guitar when she was barely out of her teens. Not long afterward, she wrote her first song, "My Dream," about her yearning to forge a music career. "I like the stories behind the songs that country artists write," she said.

RELATED: What a feeling: Woodbury girl a finalist in PBS talent competition

Earlier this year, PBS announced open online auditions for "Celebration of Music," a competition hosted by teen-aged singer and piano phenom Ethan Bortnick. Performers aged 4 to 25 were invited to audition online. A creative team chose finalists for regional finals in Minneapolis, Duluth and other cities across the country.

James submitted a video of her singing "Do You Think About Me" by her favorite singer, Carrie Underwood. She got a call-back. On Sept. 28, she'll travel to Austin, Minn. where Bortnick will perform a concert at Knowlton Auditorium. It will be televised on local PBS affiliate KSMQ.

The bad news is that Hailey and four other finalists, who include Woodbury's Caleigh Proulx, 11, will endure about a 1,000 years of agony backstage while they wait for Bortnick to finish his show. Then, and only then, he'll announce the winner, who will be determined partly by online voting prior to the show.

Hailey's parents, Aaron and Julie Trzebiatowski, are encouraging friends, family and neighbors to cast their vote online for their girl, at https://celebrationofmusic.com/hailey-james. They and her older sister Carly will travel to Austin for the show.

His daughter's rapid progress as a writer and performer has been remarkable, Aaron Trzebiatowski said.

"It's all been happening very quickly," he said. "It's awesome to hear as a Dad."

If she wins Sept. 28 in Austin, Hailey will get to come onstage and perform a song with Bortnick, a former child prodigy and singer/pianist who has performed around the world. She'll also travel to Los Angeles next summer for the taping of season one of the show.

The six episodes will be available nationally to all PBS stations.

Winners also get the opportunity to be introduced and networked with a variety of agents, managers and recording companies in the Los Angeles area.

They will also receive an exclusive invitation to record a professional single with Ethan himself which will be available on iTunes, Spotify, and other music sharing services.

James reached the semifinals at the Minnesota State Fair Talent Search and has a regular Thursday night spot at Country Nites Saloon in Hastings, where she performs her originals songs and covers by her favorite country artists. Her parents chaperone her.

She's content not to be a honky tonk girl.

"I try to sing songs that are relatable to me," she said. "I don't want to sing a song that's too mature for my age." She debuted in her 5th grade talent show at Hillside Elementary School. "I was so scared," she said. "I did it even though I was shaking the whole time."

Bortnick is performing at other regional finals throughout the country. He'll play — and name a winner — Sept. 27 at the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center.

William Loeffler

William Loeffler is a playwright and journalist from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He worked 15 years writing features for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He has also written travel stories based on his trips to all seven continents. He and his wife, Michelle, ran the Boston Marathon in 2009. 

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